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Musings on Gender Archetypes, Types and Stereotypes

Related imageArchetypes, born in ancient Pagan cultures, were understood as universal abstractions that provided a general common understanding to an otherwise diverse fabric of life and particular application of gendered reality. The association of the woman with the earth and fertility, for example, is an ancient archetype common across cultures. Or take the 3rd century BC Asian Yin and Yang principle, for example. It was an archetype for understanding the inter-connectedness and interdependence of the sexes. Incorporated as a way of explaining the deep psychology of gender, Carl Jung later called them primordial images, shared in a collective subconscious. The philosophical “archetypical” thinking of Plato was a further and significant development in the history of philosophy. Though he may not have called them “archetypes,” his concept of “ideas” or perfect forms of things was on a philosophical level what archetypes are on a psychological level. Kant, much later, but still building on Platonic thought coined the notion of the “noumenal,” the idea of things in themselves of which we have only a faint grasp because of our subjective, earth-bound phenomenal experience. We cannot abstract the perfect idea based on our experience, because our senses are limited, and we are caught in time and space. All of these thinkers, however, assume there is a reality out there, greater than our own subjective experience from which our minds intuitively draw or that there is at a most basic level, some sort of collective unconscious that leads us all to a baseline understanding of the fabric of reality.
Archetypes are built around a certain core principle, which is the summation of a particular gendered abstraction. Stereotypes are a limiting oversimplification or a popularization of gender archetypes, and while stereotypes might partially draw on the archetypes for some element of truth, they end up being much narrower in their application. To formulate it simply, one can understand gender archetypes as the highest common denominator of ideal gender qualities universally understood, whereas gender stereotypes are the lowest common reduced denominator, but they are drawn from the archetype. Another way to put it is that the archetype is the starting place whereas the stereotype is the end place of narrow, culture-bound application. These stereotypes become laws unto themselves that coerce people into a prison of man-made regulations. I tend to agree that stereotypes are enslaving and culture-bound. We gravitate toward wanting simple answers and applications to the question: “What does it mean to be a man/woman?” We can shipwreck against them in our identity formation when we put too much stock in them. We have been set on a collision course with stereotypes since Western individualistic cultures, especially, have moved further away from traditional ones which often had an archetypical understanding of gender at their center. The only way to avoid self-destruction is to choose to either embrace them fully or change course radically. On the one hand, the most wholesale human sacrifice offered to stereotypes has come from the transgender movement.  A transgender person is a victim of absolute tyranny of stereotypical male or female behavior and he or she is willing to undergo self-mutilation to be subject to its demands. By this, I mean that the measure by which a person who feels like he or she is actually of the other sex is usually stereotypical. A girl who prefers stereotypical boy activities such as mechanics or certain sports and feels the pressure from parents and friends to conform, feels she is of the “wrong” gender, instead of embracing that it could be possible, normal, and acceptable to oneself and others for a girl to have such interests. On the other hand, the opposite way for individualistic cultures of dealing with enslaving stereotypes is moving away from gender binaries altogether. If there are no binaries, there are no “right” or “wrong” expressions of gender and hence no stereotyping possible anymore.

One of the main attacks launched against the Bible and main reason for its rejection is the accusation that it promotes stereotypical behavior for the sexes. We do not find the idea of an archetypical man or a woman separate from real embodied men and women in the Bible. Perfection is found in God alone and his reality is known by us inasmuch as he reveals it to us and gives us eyes to see it. We now see dimly, as in a mirror, but when we see reality through God’s lens, we are able to see things as they line up with reality, even as finite beings unable to grasp all of God’s greatness. His plan in Christ was to break into our “phenomenal,” our immanence, our gendered experience and rescue men and women to be made perfect for all eternity. The apostle Paul writes that we do have an intuitive sort of knowledge of God given to all men and women through natural revelation which leaves us with no excuse as to God’s existence and gives a sense of normative human sexuality as well. Our spirituality and our sexuality are hence connected:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! (Romans 1:19-24)

This means we have an innate sense that there is a divine, perfect creator and moral standards that supersede our limited perceptions and hence we also can deduce that there are moral standards that affect the right way to be a gendered person. Paul explains that nature is our teacher and reveals the natural order of the sexes and their interaction. A rejection of nature and the sexuality God gave us is a rejection of God himself. A life true to his reality and revelation is one of true humility before God through the act of acceptance of our given gender as coming from God. We are born as male or female regardless of how we feel about it.[1]This is not a popular view to hold and those who do will be increasingly be accused of all sorts of bigotry. Because of the firm view of binary gender in the Bible, most people also assume it is nothing but stereotypical and hence, reject it. But in fact, it is neither stereotypical nor is even archetypical. When we look through the Bible, it presents us with many different types of men and women, none of whom are perfect and all of whom live, and sin, in their gendered bodies and hence, need salvation. The greatest “heroes” of the Bible are terribly flawed, including in their sexuality. Our sinful tendency is to want to overturn the natural order that God has established in his creation and is a result of suppressing God’s truth. Here is where the Pagan notion of archetypes and the Christian worldview collide. The Pagan archetypes served as a deification of the genders in their fallen state, creating gendered gods after man’s own imagination. This is idolatry pure and simple. The Old Testament describes this collision on many occasions. The worship of Baal and his consort, Asherah, Moloch and other Pagan deities were constant threats to the revelation and the worship of God. Pagan worship consisted of attempts at manipulating the gods to intervene on the behalf of humans and their affairs and many times this included obscene sexual or self-mutilating behavior, child sacrifice and ritual prostitution counter to the natural and revealed law of God. Keeping God’s law included protecting God’s creation order from distortions of human life and sexuality.

The closest the Bible gets to an archetypical description is when God describes himself through an image that we can understand in human terms such as Father. God is not a male, physical being. He is the perfect spiritual heavenly Father from whom all other fatherhood derives. There are other related names of God, such as Husband, or Shepherd. These names are the self-revealed names of God, the breaking into our reality through language, descriptors that help us relate to and grasp a part of God’s nature because of our experience.  Of course, this does not satisfy the atheist skeptic for whom God is just a projection of human imagination. But, like the Pagan philosophers, they also need to find an explanation for commonly held ethical beliefs that appear to be universal.
Other possible archetypical depictions are found in the wisdom literature such as Lady Wisdom, a personification of one of the attributes of God based on the grammatical gender of the Hebrew word for wisdom. The Proverbs 31 woman, which portrays an A-Z picture of wisdom applied to womanhood, is not intended to provide a specific list of all the possible ways a woman should or could act. She is someone whose gender is lived out in a particular culture and time and the activities in which she engages may have been typical of women of her time, such as spinning flax, but are no longer true of all women today. So even she is not the archetype of a woman who embodies a kind of supra-cultural abstraction. She is a type of ideal woman, but her idealness resides not in the activities she performs as much as in the qualities that underlie her undertakings: she is wise and truthful, faithful, loving, kind, compassionate, generous, hard-working, creative, entrepreneurial, strong, etc. All of these qualities she lives out as a woman faithful to God in a particular time and place and culture.
A strange archetype described in the New Testament not, per se, a gender archetype. It is that of the reality of a heavenly tabernacle after which the earthly one was patterned (see Hebrews 8). I mention this one only because Christ’s body is the fulfillment of the tabernacle and temple imagery as the place where God dwells fully and which is then transferred through the indwelling of the Spirit to the Church, the new residence of God, filled with his presence. This body is also the Bride, so there is a sense in which Christ’s union with his Bride is the new tabernacle which will be fulfilled in the new heavens.
But back to our earthly context, because we tend to think of people as interchangeable, they are taking on more and more common “non-gendered” functions. People are seen as functional commodities or a neutral workforce, instead of people with identities inseparable from gender. The more we disconnect the necessity of genders functioning in an interconnected and dependent way, the less we see gender as core to a person’s identity. We are rapidly moving towards the re-creating of new archetypes detached from or transcending gender altogether. Personhood is no longer defined in terms of physical realities but in terms of self-defined, subjective wishes. This brave (foolish?) new world has no boundaries and will, in a certain extreme re-manufacturing of humanity, mean the end of traditional civilization as we know it, in which men and women live together in the most basic kinds of ways. Scientists push the limits of separating gender functions from the persons who bear them: in vitro fertilization, artificial wombs, men being able to breastfeed, or cloning babies separate from any real mother or father. This dissociation of gender functions from real persons is bound to have a catastrophic effect on human self-understanding.
The reality described in the Bible is that we cannot set our gender aside without self-destructing. Everything we do, we do as gendered beings. It does not describe our sexual identities in terms of stereotypes. There certainly are commands given to men and women that are gender-specific, because they have to do with the core of who they are in their difference. But the desirable qualities that are pleasing to God, such as the fruit of the Spirit, are not couched in terms of virility or femininity. What looks different is the outworking of these qualities based on the gender of the person. One could go as far as to say that there are as many ways of being a God-fearing man as there are men, because each individual man is a type of man of his own, i.e., a male image bearer of God, with a unique combination of natural gifts, personality, inclinations and spiritual gifts and yet, he is called to live out godliness at the intersection of all of these things with his biological gender. There are as many ways of being a God-fearing woman as there are women. Let’s take for example the quality of courage. Is courage a male or a female quality? Well, the Bible doesn’t give us an answer to the question. But the Bible does call individuals to courage and it has lived out differently based on the person’s situation, calling, and gender. Take Ester for example. It took her great courage to go before the king, risking her life to save the Jewish people from destruction. But her courage was embodied and took place in her particular setting as a female. Or take gentleness for example. The apostle Paul describes himself as gentle. This does not mean he is effeminate even though he purposefully uses languages that might seem strange, even shocking for a “manly man” to use of himself:
“But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherishes her children: So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us. For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-9). He is making a case for himself that is reminiscent of the mediator Moses: "So Moses asked the Lord, “Why have You brought this trouble on Your servant? Why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid upon me the burden of all these people? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth, so that You should tell me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries an infant?’ (Numbers 11:11)
From these examples, you can see that the qualities of godliness are not themselves gendered, but they are lived out, inevitably, in a gendered fashion because we are embodied beings. Women and men can get frustrated in churches that establish very strict rules and interpretations of manliness and womanliness that seem outdated or culturally bound. These are in fact, stereotypes. Women must wear skirts, cannot work outside the home and men must have short hair and always be the bread-winners. But none of these things are based in the commands of Scripture and may be relics of a cultural expression of the past. Churches must constantly reexamine their teaching to make sure they are giving people the same commands as the Bible and not unduly binding people’s consciences. There are some things that are clear teachings in the Bible that are much more counter-cultural than dress such as the teaching that the man is the head of his wife and home whereas the wife is the necessary helper and life-giver. We too are “types” of Christ and his Church in the manner in which we live out our gender. Discipleship may therefore look quite different for a man who is married versus a single man or for a wife and mother with small children versus a widow in her 70s. But all have the call to follow Christ, to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, and to apply the gospel to every aspect of their gendered life.

Our human genders, male and female, both come from God and are expressions of a part of who God is. Both have an identity to bear and a task to fulfill in connection to him and to each other. The ways each lives out a humble dependence on him and in obedience to him will inevitably look different, but it will be a testimony to God’s beauty and life-giving design. We don’t need to create new tyrannical genderless archetypes that demand the sacrifice of our very life and offspring, nor do we need to bow in enslavement to culture-bound stereotypes that lead us down the path of legalism. We can live our lives in joyful acceptance of the gender God gave us, looking forward to a day when our gendered bodies will be perfectly transformed because of our union with Christ in his resurrection. God, the eternal Bridegroom will reclaim his Bride and enter into an eternal love relationship with her. That is the eternal reality toward which the binary creation order points and of which our lives are now but a faint echo. Archetypes, stereotypes and even types will disappear when Christ is revealed as the one in whom the fullness of God dwells perfectly.

[1] Intersex individuals are in an understandable difficult position, but this is very rare

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